John Morrison, a re-enactor with Historic Philadelphia Inc., portrays famous Quaker John Wetherill at the Free Quaker Meeting House in Old City, while holding several of the “American Anti-Slavery Almanacs” from the 1840s. Credit: Rikard Larma/Metro
Genealogist Lisa Arnold’s desire to delve into Quaker history comes from a very personal place: a desire to learn about her family history, which stretches back over 10 generations of Quakers.
Now, she's giving others an opportunity to do the same. On Monday, Ancestry.com will post a massive trove of about 11 million digitized Quaker birth, marriage, death and disownment records.
“I honestly think it’s going to revolutionize Quaker research,” said Arnold, a senior content strategist for Ancestry.com.
These records, accounting for 75 to 85 percent of all Quaker records worldwide, have previously been only accessible in physical form at four major archives: at Swarthmore and Haverford colleges, in North Carolina and in Indiana.
“Ancestry has digitized all these and indexed them, meaning they’ve keyed in every name that they’ve found,” Arnold said. “You can look up ‘Sam and his wife,’ and see all the places they appear in these records.”
Archivists who have looked over these records for years are pleased with the work Ancestry.com is doing.
“What it allows us to do is digitize our records at no cost,” said Patricia O’Donnell, archivist at the Swarthmore College's Friends Historical Library. “We’re viewing it as long-term preservation, and also as a way and means to get the material out to the public.”
Meanwhile, Arnold is also publishing a new book, “Thee and Me: A Beginner’s Guide to Early Quaker Records,” intended to help amateur genealogists studying their family history and the curious.
“I have examples of what you’re going to see on Ancestry and how to know what you’re looking at,” she said. “How do you start, what steps now, what does this abbreviation mean – it’s a step-by-step of what to do.”
Impact on U.S. history
Beyond genealogical research, the newly digitized records are also an important piece of U.S. history.
“The Quakers were extremely impactful in history,” Arnold said. “Their passion to eliminate slavery and elevate the role of women in society are things we’re still dealing with today, and they were doing it 300 years ago.”
The Quakers always valued equality, addressing each other as ‘thee’ regardless of social rank, maintaining small-sized tombstones and shunning displays of grandeur.
Philadelphia’s founder, William Penn, was a Quaker who negotiated the famous Penn Treaty with the Delaware and Lenape Indians, which was far more equitable than agreements any other American settlers devised.
The newly digitized records date from Penn’s era in the 1680s, when Quakers first came to North America fleeing persecution in England, up through to about 1800.
“There was 20 years of persecution against these Quakers because they just wanted to gather and sit in silence together,” Arnold said, referring to the Quakers' traditional mode of worship: gathering and sitting in silence until "the spirit moves them" to address the group.
Arnold herself grew up a member of Westfield Friends Meeting in Cinnaminson, New Jersey.
“Quaker ancestry fascinates people because ... it’s a culture, it’s a way of life,” Arnold said. “'Nothing good ever came from anger and aggression' is a Quaker saying. … The quietness and the simplicity of the Quakers is still a desirable way to live.”
Home of the ‘Free’
Arnold is a descendant of Isaac Potts (founder of Pottstown), who broke from the Quaker tradition of refusing to provide services to any military body by giving a house to Gen. George Washington at Valley Forge.
“All the Quakers were looking for ways to help,” Arnold said.
Since the Quaker sect of Christianity strictly forbids all involvement with any military group, when the Revolutionary War began those who wanted to participate formed their own sect, the Free Quakers, which included John Wetherill, and built the Free Quakers Meeting House in Old City.
“The Free Quakers broke away from the central Quaker body because they felt really strongly the need to support the Revolutionary War,” Arnold explained. “These were men that felt strongly that they could not maintain what Quakers call ‘peace testimony,’ they could not allow their neighbors to go fight, protect their lives and maybe die – and not help in the effort.”